Johnson Conversation with Martin Luther King on Jan 15, 1965 (WH6501.04)
Download: WAV MP3
Browse Johnson Finding Aids
Date: January 15, 1965
Details: Martin Luther King
In responding to Dr. King's suggestion for the appointment of African American to a Cabinet-level post, Johnson laid out his priorities on racial matters, particularly in legislation and in Cabinet-level appointments. Johnson and King discuss the importance of the Voting Rights Act in the context of much broader legislation to help black Americans, especially poor black Americans.
Operator: Dr. King?
Martin Luther King, Jr.: Yes?
Operator: The President will be right with you. He's outside. We're getting him. Just a moment.
King: Thank you.
President Johnson: Hello?
President Johnson: This is Lyndon Johnson. I had a call--
President Johnson: --from you and I tried to reply to it a couple times--Savannah and different places--and they said you were traveling [chuckles] and I got to traveling last night. [Unclear comment by King] Just got down here to meet the Prime Minister of Canada this morning. And I had a moment and I thought maybe we better try to--I'd better try to reply to your call.
King: Well, I certainly appreciate your returning the call, and I don't want to take but just a minute or two of your time. First, I want to thank you for that great State of the Union message. It was really a marvelous presentation. And I think we're on the way now toward the Great Society.
President Johnson: I'll tell you what our problem is. We've got to try with every force at our command--and I mean every force--to get these education bills that go to those people [with] under $2,000 a year [of] income, 1.5 billion [dollars]. And this poverty [bill] that's a billion, and a half and this health [bill] that's going to be 900 million [dollars] next year right at the bottom. We've to get them passed before the vicious forces concentrate and get them a coalition that can block them. Then we have got to--so we won't divide them all and get them hung up in a filibuster. We've got to--when we get these big things through that we need--Medicare, education--I've already got that hearing started the 22nd in the House and 26th in the Senate. Your people ought to be very, very diligent in looking at those committee members that come from urban areas that are friendly to you to see that those bills get reported right out, because you have no idea--it's shocking to you--how much benefits they will get. There's 8.5 billion [dollars] this year for education, compared to 700 million [dollars] when I started. So you can imagine what effort that's going to be. And this one bill is a 1.5 billion [dollars]. Now, if we can get that and we can get a Medicare [bill]--we ought to get that by February--then we get our poverty [bill], that will be more than double what it was last year.
President Johnson: Then we've got to come up with the qualification of voters. That will answer 70 percent of your problems.
King: That's right.
President Johnson: If you just clear it out everywhere, make it age and [the ability to] read about write. No tests on what [Geoffrey] Chaucer said or [Robert] Browning's poetry or constitutions or memorizing or anything else.
President Johnson: And then you may have to put them in the post office. Let the Postmaster--that's a federal employee that I control who they can say is local. He's recommended by the Congressmen, he's approved by the Senator. But if he doesn't register everybody I can put a new one in.
President Johnson: And it's not an outside Washington influence. It's a local man but they can all just to go the post office like they buy stamps. Now, I haven't thought this through but that's my general feeling, and I've talked to the Attorney General, and I've got them working on it. I don't want to start off with that any more than I do with 14-B because I wouldn't get anything else.
King: Yes. Yes. [Unclear.]
President Johnson: Do you--And I don't want to publicize it, but I want--that's--I wanted you to know the outline of what I had in mind.
King: Yes. Well, I remember that you mentioned it to me the other day when we met at the White House, and I have been very diligent in not . . . making this statement.
President Johnson: Well, your statement was perfect about the vote's important, very important. And I think it's good to talk about that. And I just don't see how anybody can say that a man can fight in Vietnam but he can't vote in the post office.
King: Yes. Right. Well, Mr. President, I'll tell you the main thing I wanted to share with you. This really rose out of conversations that I've had with all of the civil rights leaders--I mean the heads of civil rights organizations--
President Johnson: Yeah.
King: --as well as many people around the country as I have traveled. We have a strong feeling that it would mean so much, first, to help with our whole democracy but to the Negro and to the nation, to have a Negro in the Cabinet. We feel that this would really would be a great step forward for the nation, for the Negro, for our international image. And it would do so much to give many people a lift who need a lift now. And I'm sure that it could give a new sense of dignity and self-respect to millions of Negroes who--there are millions of Negro youth who feel that they don't have anything to look forward to in life.
President Johnson: I agree with that. I have not publicly shouted from the house top, but I have had them sit in with me. I--the first move I made was to put one [an African American] on the [National] Security Council.
President Johnson: And to put one in charge of every bit of the information that went to all of the 120 nations and take him out of an important ambassador post.1 And I am trying my best to get the housing and urban and city problems [sic], which is the number one problem in America as I see it, made into a Cabinet post. I have a good chance of getting it done, unless I get tied in with the racial thing. I'm going to concentrate all of the executive power I can to get that done. I'm pretty half-way committed to putting in [Robert] Weaver, who I consider to be a very able administrator and [who has] done a good job and who we respect pretty highly.2 And I'm trying to bring in others as assistants and deputies. I talked to them no longer than two hours ago about trying to get one in charge of, maybe, African affairs if [G. Mennen] Williams left. I don't know whether you know him or not, but I'm just giving consideration. I don't want to get it around, but it's this fellow [George] Carter that runs [the] African desk for the Peace Corps.
King: Oh, yes.
President Johnson: Do you know him?
King: I just--no, I don't know him well.
President Johnson: Well--
President Johnson: He's very, very able and we've got George Weaver over in the Labor Department, and I'm bringing them in just as fast as I can. I gave Carl Rowan the top job over [at the United States Information Agency] . . . I would guess that eight out of the ten people that I talked to felt like that I had problems there. But up to now, he's--he sits with the Security Council on everything. He participates just like the Secretary of State. And I'm going to--I don't want to make a commitment on it because I don't want it to get tied down in the Congress. But I'm going to shove as strong as I can to get the biggest department there--housing, urban affairs, city, transportation--everything that comes in that department that involves the urban areas of America into one department. And then if I can get that done without having to commit one way or the other, my hope would be that I could put the man in there and probably it would be Weaver because I think we have, more or less, a moral obligation to a fellow that's done a--
King: He's a top flight man.
President Johnson: He's done a good job, and he hasn't disappointed anybody. If we put somebody into a job and he fails, we lose three steps when we go ahead one.
President Johnson: And I haven't had any of that, if you'll notice it.
President Johnson: We haven't had any mistakes or any corruption or any scandals of any kind. And I've moved them in, I mean, by the wholesale the, both women and men.
King: Yes. Well, this--I--this is very encouraging and I was, as I said, very concerned about this and I know how others have been mentioning that--what this could mean; it would be another great step toward the Great Society.
President Johnson: I have seen where they considered Whitney for--Whitney Young--for a place with [a] top job with [Sargent] Shriver. He's running two shows, and maybe as a kind of associate director with Shriver with the poverty group. I thought that ought to get under way a little bit. I don't know what Shriver's said about it. I have a very high regard for Whitney. I like him. I don't feel--I honestly don't feel that with Roy Wilkins or with you or with [A. Philip] Randolph or with the man from CORE [James Farmer] that meets with us, I really don't think I have a moral obligation to any of them like I have to Weaver, who has been in there. And it's kind of like you being assistant pastor of your church for ten years with the understanding of your deacons that you would be--take over and then you--they lose and they don't get to make a pastor, and then you continue to carry on, and then finally when the good day comes, they say, "Well, you get back [and] sit at the second table." I just don't feel like saying that to Weaver.
President Johnson: Now, Weaver's not my man. I didn't bring him in. He's a [John F.] Kennedy man, but I just think that there'd be a pretty revolutionary feeling about him. I--Carl Rowan's not my man. He's a Kennedy man. But he's got the biggest job in government, and it's a Cabinet job. He sits with the Cabinet every time. He sits with the [National] Security Council every time. And I did it the first month I was in office.
President Johnson: I don't throw it around to cause him to be attacked by his appropriations [committees] because the Southerners handle them. [John] McClellan handles his appropriations. But after we get by pretty well this year and I can get this reorganization through, why, we'll not only have people like Weaver and Carter and undersecretary's places, but we'll have Rowan head there, and we'll have Weaver and perhaps some other folks on the order of Whitney and whoever you-all think's good.
King: Well, we think very highly of Whitney and--
President Johnson: I do, too.
King: --that he can play a role in--
President Johnson: [with King acknowledging] I do, too. You know, he's worked very closely in our Equal Employment [Office], and he's done a very good job in about 60 cities, where his people have branches on employment. And I rather think that there's been substantial progress--not enough--but I rather think there's been substantial progress with industry on a higher level. Don't you?
King: I think so. There's no doubt about it.
President Johnson: Every corporation I talk to--and I talked to 30 of them yesterday--they are looking for Negroes that can do the job that a George Weaver does or Carl Rowan does or a fellow like Weaver does. If we have some of them, and if you have some of them, and you get them to Hobart Taylor, we can find companies that will use men of that quality.3Then when they get in, they can look after the ones below them like you're looking after your people.
King: Well, I think you're right, and we're certainly going to continue to work in that area.
President Johnson: There's not going to be anything though, Dr., as effective as all of them voting.
King: That's right. Nothing--
President Johnson: That'll get you a message that all the eloquence in the world won't bring, because the fellow will be coming to you then instead of you calling him.
King: And it's very interesting, Mr. President, to notice that the only states that you didn't carry in the South, the five Southern states,have less than 40 percent of the Negroes registered to vote.4 It's very interesting to notice. And I think a professor at the University of Texas, in a recent article, brought this out very clearly. So it demonstrates that it's so important to get Negroes registered to vote in large numbers in the South. And it would be this coalition of the Negro vote and the moderate white vote that will really make the new South.
President Johnson: That's exactly right. I think it's very important that we not say that we're doing this, and we not do it just because it's negroes or whites. But we take the position that every person born in this country and when they reach a certain age, that he have a right to vote, just like he has a right to fight. And that we just extend it whether it's a Negro or whether it's a Mexican or who it is.
King: That's right.
President Johnson: And number two, I think that we don't want special privilege for anybody. We want equality for all, and we can stand on that principle. But I think that you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination where a man's got to memorize [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow or whether he's got to quote the first 10 Amendments or he's got to tell you what amendment 15 and 16 and 17 is, and then ask them if they know and show what happens. And some people don't have to do that. But when a Negro comes in, he's got to do it. And we can just repeat and repeat and repeat. I don't want to follow [Adolph] Hitler, but he had a--he had a[n] idea--
President Johnson: --that if you just take a simple thing and repeat it often enough, even if it wasn't true, why, people accept it. Well, now, this is true, and if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana, or South Carolina, where--well, I think one of the worst I ever heard of is the president of the school at Tuskegee or the head of the government department there or something being denied the right to a cast a vote. And if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio and get it on television and get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can, pretty soon the fellow that didn't do anything but follow--drive a tractor, he's say, "Well, that's not right. That's not fair."
President Johnson: And then that will help us on what we're going to shove through in the end.
King: Yes. You're exactly right about that.
President Johnson: And if we do that, we'll break through as--it'll be the greatest breakthrough of anything, not even excepting this 64 [Civil Rights] Act. I think the greatest achievement of my administration, I think the great achievement in foreign policy, I said to a group yesterday, was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But I think this will be bigger because it'll do things that even that '64 Act couldn't do.
King: That's right. That's right. Yes, that's right.
Well, Mr. President, I certainly appreciate your giving me this time and I certainly appreciate getting your ideas on these things, but that I just wanted to share it with you, and I wanted you to know we have thisfeeling but we have not set on any particular person.We felt that Bob Weaver, Whitney Young, or Ralph Bunche, somebody like that [unclear]--
President Johnson: Every one of those people have my respect. And what you do is this: you just say to them that I'm not going to send a message to the Congress. And say that if you will give me this power, I will do this as a trade, because I think that would do us all damage. But if I can get my urban and housing affair[s] [bill], you know what my intentions are.
President Johnson: And I've got a pretty good Cabinet. As far as I know, I'm going to keep them all, probably, except maybe the Secretary of the Treasury, perhaps. I don't know what's going to happen to the Attorney General. I've given a good deal of thought to folks like Abe Fortas, a good deal of thought to folks like Clark Clifford, a good deal thought to [Nicholas] Katzenbach, a good deal of thought to . . . all those folks are pretty liberal and they're right on our question. I've appointed John Doar in charge of the problem over there.5 But I think most of the others are planning to stay, and I need them on these big programs--health and education and defense and state. But the one thing we want to do is shove through our housing reorganization and put them in charge of the cities.
President Johnson: Then New York City has got to come, sit down, and talk to these people. Chicago has got to come. New Orleans has got to come. Atlanta has got to come. If they don't, they just can't move.
President Johnson: And then I think we'll have a good man who's trained that's come up through the ranks, that's married, that's not on account of color, not on account of anything else, but he'll be there.
King: Yes. Yes. Well, this is wonderful, and I certainly appreciate your--
President Johnson: The two things you do for us, now. You find the most ridiculous illustration you can on voting and point it up and repeat it and get everybody else to do it. Second thing is please look at that labor committee in the House and Senate. Please look at that health committee. Please look at that immigration committee. And let us try to get health and education and poverty through the first 90 days.
King: Yes. Well, we're going to be doing that. You can depend on our absolute support.
President Johnson: Whitney's group can go to talking to them and Roy's group can and your group can and they ought to tell [William F.] Ryan of New York and they ought to tell so-and-so in Philadelphia and they ought to tell so-and-so from Atlanta, "Please get this bill reported."
President Johnson: Because I don't think you have any conception of the proportion of assistance that comes to your people in these bills. I haven't pointed that out. I haven't stressed it.
King: Right. Well, I know they will be--they have been and will be even more tremendous help and--
President Johnson: You can figure out though what $8 billion in education, what $1 billion in health, and what $1.5 billion in poverty will do if it goes to people who earn less than $2,000 a year.
President Johnson: Now, you know who earns less than 2,000, don't you? [chuckles]
King: That's right. Yes, sir. Well, it will certainly be a great movement. We've just got to work hard at it. [Unclear.]
President Johnson: And I'm part of this administration, but we talked about what we're going to do [for] three years and we had to do it the fourth. We passed 51 bills last year. Now, I've got those messages up there. [It is the] first time by January 15 any President has ever had a half a dozen messages before the Congress. Most of them don't even have their State of the Union until after the inauguration.
King: Yeah, that's right.
President Johnson: But they're there and they're ready for them to go to work, and we're not just going to talk. If they'll vote, I'm ready. We've got our recommendations. And we talked the first three years of our administration. We promised, and we held it up and people were getting to be pretty disillusioned, I think, when I finally beat the Rules Committee and got [the] Civil Rights [Act of 1964] out.
King: Yeah. Well, I know.
President Johnson: I think you might had a lot more revolution in this country than you could handle if we had had that Civil Rights [bill] stay in the Rules Committee under Judge Smith.
King: That's right. Oh, that's--that's such a disillusion [unclear].
President Johnson: Well, we talked about it [for] three years, you know. [Unclear comment by King] But we just did something about it. So that's what we got to do now, and you get in there and help us.
King: Well, I certainly will, and you know you can always count on that.
President Johnson: Thank you so much.
King: All right. God bless you. Thank you, Mr. President.
President Johnson: Bye. Bye.
1.Carl Rowan was Ambassador to Finland from 21 May 1963 to 8 February 1964 and in 1964 became Director of the United States Information Agency [USIA].
2.Robert C. Weaver became the first African American to be appointed to a Cabinet-level position in 1966 when President Johnson made him the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
3.Hobart Taylor, Jr., Special Counsel to the President's Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity during the Kennedy Administration and Director of the Export-Import Bank of the United States during the Johnson Administration.
4.President Johnson won the 1964 Presidential election in a landslide, carrying all but six states, five of which were in the Deep South (the sixth was Nevada)--South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
5. John Doar was Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. President Johnson likely meant hte Division of Civil Rights in the Justice Department.